by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
Being a zombie didn’t hurt as much as Jeremy had expected it would. He was pretty sure getting bitten had, though even that was drowned in the memory of scalding fear and searing panic and the sight of a couple of people he barely knew going down under a wave of flailing limbs. If anything, his bashed knuckles stung more than the ring of shallow toothmarks on his upper arm, because after he’d run away and found a hiding spot in one of the half-built houses on the periphery of town there’d been a period of scream-crying and punching the unpainted drywall. When he’d exhausted himself, he’d slumped down into a corner and waited to die, or at least change.
But nothing happened. He was probably in shock or whatever, but after a while he became aware of the sound of the wind wheezing at the empty window socket, the flap of torn plastic on the house across the muddy gap that would have been a road, someday, if there hadn’t been an apocalypse. He didn’t hear stumbling or moaning or the high-pitched screaming of someone being disemboweled, so, you know, the day was looking up.
He moved, and the crust of dried gore on the sleeve of his T-shirt scraped across raw flesh. He flinched and looked down at his arm. The bite was pretty gross, his skin puffing up around two crescents like lines of unsteady sewing. Each little indent oozed blood and something yellowish.
He’d taken off his backpack before the melee, and it was sitting back at the corner of the old concession road and the newly paved cross-street, but he remembered that he had a grimy bandanna in his back pocket. He managed to tie it around the wound and knot it with his teeth, feeling as if he’d been poorly cast in an action movie. His flannel shirt was tied around his waist, and he put it on. At least now he didn’t have to look at the injury that was going to change his life.
He must have lost some time, because it had been afternoon when they’d been mobbed, and now the light was getting murky. No way was he going to wander around at night. Zombies didn’t eat other zombies, supposedly, but he wasn’t super-thrilled at the idea of testing the theory. At least here he had a roof over his head. And it wasn’t like he’d been going anywhere specific anyway.
The doorless opening to the landing made him uneasy, though. There was an alcove along one wall, probably a closet, hidden from view of anyone or anything coming up the stairwell. He lay down on its plywood subfloor and stared into the gloom.
To his utter lack of surprise, he didn’t sleep well, or didn’t exactly sleep at all. The night seemed endless, filled with shadowy dreams of running and chasing someone running, until he opened his eyes to find sunlight searing in through the window hole. His clothes were clammy, and the inside of his mouth felt coated in slime.
His options didn’t feel any more numerous in the morning light. He could stay here and wait to die, or he could go somewhere else and die there.
Somewhere–anywhere–else would be more comfortable, though. Having a softer surface to lie on sounded awesome, for one. And–he peeled his tongue off the roof of his mouth–finding some water would be good.
Jeremy went down the stairs. His footsteps echoed against all the hard surfaces around him. It was so bizarre how even sounds were different these days–just for the moment, the breeze had died down, and there was no subdued din of the highway, no drone of airplanes. He’d never noticed all the noise until it went away.
And then he heard a thump and a grunt outside, and panic surged through him in a hot wave.
“Goddammit,” someone muttered.
Jeremy tiptoed to the edge of the wide opening that was never going to be a picture window. Someone was pushing themselves up from their knees and disgustedly wiping muddy hands on the thighs of their pants.
Not just someone.
“Noah?” Jeremy said involuntarily.
Noah whipped around. His hands went behind his head, and he jerked a machete out of what must have been a sheath strapped to his backpack. He bent his knees as though readying to run, or attack.
Wow. He looked like he’d been legitimately cast in an action movie.
“It’s me.” Jeremy ran out the front door and onto the naked concrete porch, where he squinted at his several-times-ex in the harsh sunlight.
“Jeremy? Oh my god.”
Jeremy must have moved, because there was soft ground under his feet, and he and Noah were hugging, Noah still holding the machete.
“I can’t believe it.” Noah pulled back, one hand still gripping Jeremy’s sleeve.
“Oh my god,” Noah said again.
“How’d you get here?” Jeremy asked, which seemed an inadequate question.
“I was going to check out those houses, see if there was anything left to salvage.” Noah pointed into the distance with the machete. He let go of Jeremy and guided the blade back into its sheath. “But look, if we’re going to talk we should think about getting inside. Do you have a place nearby?”
“Not really. I was just here for the night.” But Jeremy preceded him back into the house. The open-concept first floor had a framed-in alcove, and Jeremy stopped there, away from the yawning window gaps and the bright morning.
Noah was still looking at him as though Jeremy hadn’t spent the last couple of years before the apocalypse ignoring him at every inevitable chance run-in. “It, uh, it sounds pretty weird to ask how you’re doing, right?”
“Everything’s weird, though.”
“No kidding.” Noah’s smile was crooked. “So how are you doing?”
“All right, I guess.” His arm throbbed and itched under the bandanna, as if he’d invoked something. Noah couldn’t know he’d been bitten, Jeremy thought, and wondered where that had come from. “You?”
“Fine. I mean, considering, you know.” Noah raised slightly muddy hands to indicate the entire world. “You said you were only here for the night. Where are you headed? Are you alone?”
The memory of the people he’d only met a few days before they died…didn’t flash through his mind, exactly, just sort of surfaced and submerged again like a weak swimmer going down for the third time. “Yeah. I was with some people, but they…left. I mean, they wanted to go to this place, and I didn’t, so…”
“Yeah? That’s kind of what happened to me too. They were my upstairs neighbours, I didn’t know them all that well, but we kind of stuck together when everything went crazy. They decided to head east to a farm some friends of theirs had. I just didn’t like the chances of weeks on the road when I’m not even sure where I’m going. I thought I’d–“
The loose plastic across the road cracked in a sudden breeze, and Noah’s right hand went to the handle of his machete. He froze like that, listening. After what seemed like a long time, during which Jeremy stood there not knowing what to do with his own hands, Noah released it. “Anyway, I want to cover some ground during daylight.”
At the thought of Noah leaving, tension clenched in Jeremy, abrupt and painful. Even stronger, maybe, than it had been the several times they’d broken up. He made a sound of protest. Words spun in his brain, ungraspable.
Noah grasped the straps of his backpack and shrugged a little as if adjusting it, not looking at Jeremy. “If you wanted to come along, it’s probably safer to be together. Not alone, I mean.”
“Yes,” Jeremy said, barely letting him finish.
Noah let out a breath. Jeremy could actually see his shoulders relax. “Awesome. Get your stuff and let’s head out.”
His stuff? Right, he’d had a backpack. “I kind of dropped it back…” He waved in the direction of what had been the edge of town before this housing development had bulldozed everything green. “There were zoms, and I had to run.”
“Okay, let’s go get it. Do you have a weapon on you? No? You lead, you know where we’re going, and I’ll bring up the rear.”
It wasn’t all that far, though yesterday it had seemed like he was fleeing for an eternity through mud that tried to sink him and long grass that tangled around his legs. Jeremy slit his eyes against the glaring sunshine, one hand up to shield his face, and led Noah through the unbuilt subdivision to the concession road. When he looked south he could see his backpack sitting there on the asphalt like a slightly heaved tombstone.
“The zoms might still be around. Let’s move fast,” Noah said, and they jogged down the road. They passed huge concrete sewer pipes and a yellow excavator, its claw suspended over earth being recolonised by green. Not far was past that was the edge of the field into which he and the other two had fled, though not very far. The weeds were long. Jeremy wasn’t interested in looking any closer.
His backpack had been untouched. Zombies didn’t care about people stuff. But Jeremy scooped it up and onto his back with a sense of familiarity that felt better than anything had in the last day.
“Great. Maybe get out your weapon before we head back,” Noah said, continuing to look into the distance past Jeremy and then up the road again, east into the yards of older houses and west into the scraped-down pre-subdivision landscape.
“I dropped it. I don’t know where.” It was, in fact, lying among the recent remains in that field. A long-handled hammer that had given him blisters if he carried it for too long. He’d never used it before, and he’d dropped it the first time he’d hit something with it.
He knew he sounded defensive. But Noah just nodded in acknowledgement. “We’ll have to find you a new one. Right now, let’s get under cover again.”
They retraced their steps. The whole housing development was like a frozen time lapse of construction, denuded ground marked with fluorescent orange stakes giving way to poured concrete holes in the ground, see-through stick framing, and in the distance a handful of what looked like completed homes, the ones Noah had been aiming for. Jeremy wondered whether anyone had lived in them and if they’d been looted yet.
“Here,” Noah directed. He ducked into a tunnel between a house and a stack of lumber and crouched down. “Listen.”
A lot of the time, you could hear zombies coming. Some of them groaned like they did in the movies, and they didn’t exactly creep around. Jeremy held his breath, but it was the same silence as before, nothing but birds and breeze.
“It sounds like nothing saw us. Let’s go. Stay in the shadows when you can.”
Keeping to the shadows on the west side of the houses was easier on Jeremy’s eyes, at least, though every time they emerged into the sunlight his eyes teared up and the landscape blurred. The inside of his mouth was gummy, and when he tried to swallow, his spit felt thick.
“Can we stop for a bit?” Jeremy asked, leaning against a plastic-wrapped exterior wall as Noah glanced between the houses. “I want to have some water.”
“Sure thing. Here’s probably good, but let me check that it’s empty.” The house that was supporting Jeremy had rough board steps leading up to the back doorway. Noah disappeared into the house, and in less than a minute said from inside, “Okay, come on in.”
It was the same floor plan as the house Jeremy had spent the night in, though further along in its construction, the joints of the drywall pasted over and the kitchen counter and cupboards installed. On one wall was a roughed-in fireplace with a raised stone hearth. Noah sat on it, his backpack between his feet. “Are you good for food?”
Jeremy swung off his own backpack, which was much smaller than Noah’s. He knew he had a couple of bottles of water and some stale snacks somewhere inside, though one of his companions had been carrying the good stuff, meaning the dried camping meals they’d found in someone’s basement. “Yeah, I’ve got some.” He found a half-full bottle and took several gulps of room-temperature water. He inhaled at the wrong time and coughed for a good half-minute. By the time he could breathe again, his throat felt as though he’d been swallowing rock salt.
He squirmed his hand back into his pack. He remembered shoving stuff whichever way into it yesterday morning, which seemed eons ago. The bag of snacks was not where it often was, down the right side. He pulled out his thick sweater, a pair of balled-up and odiferous socks…his hand met plastic, but the ziplock bag he pulled out contained his gooey bar of soap. Underwear. A long-sleeved T-shirt tangled with the multi-tool with the cracked casing and the screwdriver missing. Oh, there were his sunglasses. One of the arms was fastened on with duct tape, which made them a little wonky and was why he hadn’t been wearing them yesterday, but he put them on, and the room dimmed. The tightness around his eyes eased, dulling a pain he hadn’t been fully conscious of.
Another plastic bag. That was it: dried apples, and a handful of peanuts and two brazil nuts that were the dregs of a package of trail mix. He opened the bag, and his nose wrinkled. The smell was worse than the socks, acrid and fermented and sweet.
He didn’t see any mould on the fruit, though. He should probably eat something. He’d had nothing for at least twenty-four hours. Even though hunger had been more or less a constant state for months and that hadn’t exactly waned, his stomach clenched at the thought. Except shouldn’t he try to keep his strength up or something?
As if it would matter.
He put a piece of apple into his mouth and chewed. When he tried to swallow, it was like that time in second grade when Brad Barkeley had forced him to eat papier mache paste; he couldn’t make it go down. Eventually he sluiced it down with some more water, like a pill. His throat burned.
Noah was zipping up a small green bag, one of those square nylon ones people used for travelling. He tucked the bag into a side pocket of his backpack, where it fit perfectly. The remaining pockets, Jeremy saw, were stacked with bottles of water.
Noah took the last bite of the energy bar he held in one hand. “You good to go?”
“Sure.” Jeremy twisted the plastic bag closed and shoved it and everything else back into his pack. Maybe they’d scavenge something for dinner that didn’t sit in his stomach like a lump of raw bread dough.
Outdoors was more tolerable now that he had sunglasses on, at least at first. The August morning was heating up. They paused from time to time in the shade of a house, waiting and listening, but Noah kept up a steady pace. Jeremy’s T-shirt plastered itself to his back and armpits. He rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt, but they kept folding back down again, flapping around his wrists. He could feel each drop of sweat as it popped out on his forehead and temples. His throat tightened. He stopped, panting, in the blazing heat.
Noah had reached the corner of another house. Jeremy saw him turn, notice that Jeremy wasn’t with him, and emerge from the shadows.
Jeremy bent over and threw up into a rutted tire track. Water, half-chewed apple, bile. His throat felt as though he were throwing up sandpaper. His stomach convulsed again, and he vomited more bile, thick and green-yellow. Was there red in it? Yeah, Jeremy realized, there was.
“Here.” An uncapped bottle of water appeared in his line of sight. Jeremy’s stomach tried to turn itself inside out. Noah waited. Jeremy spat and reached for the bottle with a trembling hand. He rinsed his mouth out, taking care not to swallow a drop. He wiped his lips, noticed a little smear of pink, and filled his cupped hand with water to wash any trace away.
“Are you okay?” Noah asked.
Jeremy straightened. “I think my trail mix might have gone bad.”
“Let’s go sit down in the shade.”
They sat against the house. The poured concrete foundation was cool; Jeremy pulled his arms out of his backpack straps and pressed his shoulders and the back of his neck against it. He closed his eyes, took off his sunglasses, and dribbled water over his face.
“Are you feeling any better?” Noah asked after a bit.
Jeremy put his sunglasses back on. “I think so.”
“Do you want a breath mint?”
Jeremy swallowed. “I think I’ll stick with water for now.”
Noah handed him the bottle cap. Jeremy nearly dropped it. His hands felt like rubber gloves filled with jello. It took him a couple of tries to get the cap onto the threads of the bottle neck.
Noah had stood up and was peering around the corner of the house. “Ready?”
Despite the state of his stomach, Jeremy did feel like getting moving. Kind of twitchy, actually. He stood and hefted his backpack on. “Let’s go.”
As they neared the farthest houses, Jeremy could see a line of flags along the main road, vertical bands of colour billowing out and flattening in the inconsistent breeze. As he got closer, he could make out the words on them: Freehold. Your search stops here. A home for life. The ground around the row of finished houses had been sodded, though the grass was mostly the colour of straw.
Noah clicked his tongue in disappointment. “Model homes. We’re probably not going to find any food in there.”
“Might be worth checking anyway. They don’t look like they’ve been trashed.” The windows were intact and nothing looked burned, which was more than could be said for a lot of the houses he’d scavenged from. You’d think people would have had better things to do during an apocalypse than wreck stuff, but there’d been a point when a lot of survivors had just lost their shit.
They looked both ways up and down the road and backwards through the houses. There was a minivan parked on the shoulder, taupe with dust. Nothing moved.
Jeremy followed Noah onto the porch of the nearest model home. The white railings were vinyl, with a topographic fake wood grain. The floor was those plastic boards made out of recycled pop bottles.
“Our lucky day. Thanks, real estate people,” Noah said under his breath, as he pushed the unlocked front door open.
It was warmer inside than outside, the air stale, with a lingering whiff of lemon air freshener. To the left was a living room, everything red plaids and rag rugs and picture frames with hearts in them. To the right were stairs leading upwards. Past the hallway closet and the powder room, the back of the house opened up into one big room, kitchen on one side and loveseats arranged around an honest-to-god wood-burning fireplace at the other, with a massive wooden table that could have sat twelve between them.
“Score!” Noah held up a handful of crinkling packages from a wide basket on the table: individually wrapped chocolate chip cookies.
Jeremy wandered into the kitchen. The window curtains were red gingham, and the cupboard doors looked like wooden panelling. He opened one at random. “There’s a whole box here.” The carton was printed with the name of a multinational food conglomerate, which meant that the cookies were still safe to eat and probably would last indefinitely. He opened another cupboard. It was stacked with glossy paper brochures. He took one off the top. Come home to Applewood Gate, invited a heterosexual white couple holding a couple of blond children, all of them smiling in the wholesome sunshine.
“Awesome.” Noah was systematically flinging open cupboard doors. “Check this out.” He heaved a plastic-wrapped flat of bottled water onto the counter. “There’s got to be five or six cases here. Oh my god, you know what that means?”
“Um. We don’t die of thirst today?” There was no way they could carry several cases of water any distance. Water was hella heavy.
“It means we get to wash,” Noah said rapturously. “I forget what it’s like not to reek.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Jeremy had gotten kind of used to the way he himself smelled. He didn’t know what Noah was talking about, though. Noah smelled amazing, like bread fresh out of the oven.
The cupboards and kitchen drawers turned up some real estate swag–pens and notepads, fridge magnets, a couple of travel mugs–as well as dish soap and a lone box of Kraft dinner. By unspoken agreement they didn’t touch the plugged-in, dead refrigerator. Anything that had needed to be stored in there was best left entombed.
“Let’s take a look upstairs,” Noah said, cracking open a fresh bottle of water with a flourish.
There were three bedrooms upstairs. The largest had a huge bathroom attached, with two sinks and a claw-footed tub. There were clothes hanging in the walk-in closet, just a few, as if to hint what this sizeable room was for. The wall behind the huge bed looked like reclaimed barn board, but Jeremy could see repeating patterns in the grain. The other two bedrooms were subtly colour-coordinated, one yellow with blue accents and one green with blue accents. The bathroom between them matched the blue, down to the labels on the soap bottle.
“How are you feeling?” Noah asked, after they’d ransacked the dresser and bedside table drawers. There wasn’t much up here, though they each scored one nearly full roll of toilet paper.
“Still a little queasy.” His throat still hitched with pain when he tried to swallow.
“We should camp here for the night,” Noah said. “I know it’s only lunchtime, but we can have a wash, and you can get some rest. We can cook a hot dinner, sleep in actual beds, and get going in the morning. Are you good with that?”
“Yeah, that sounds great.” It wasn’t like he had any plans of his own.
They each carried a flat of water bottles up the stairs. When he picked up the carton, his left hand spasmed, and he nearly dropped the box. Fortunately, Noah was ahead of him, and didn’t notice.
He let Noah have the big washroom, and went into the shared one. He locked the door behind him before he peeled off his shirts. Dried yellow fluid crusted the folded edges of the bandanna. When he untied the loose knot, he found that the fabric was stuck to his arm. He soaked the cloth with cool water until he could strip it away.
A yellowish film had grown over the punctures. Around the indent of each tooth was an outline of dark purple bruising, variegating in magenta and rose blotches down to his elbow and up to his shoulder. It didn’t hurt; in fact, he could barely feel it, even when he pulled the bandanna a bit too hard and a pearl of sluggish blood seeped out of one wound. It occurred to him to look at his right hand, which he’d banged up pretty good yesterday. The knuckles were scraped and swollen, but there was no pain, even when he made a fist.
He wondered why he wasn’t more freaked out. Granted, the last twenty-four hours had been a lot. Everything would probably catch up with him sooner or later. On the other hand, he was just as happy to not be experiencing any more wall-punching terror.
He shed the rest of his clothes and got into the bathtub with several bottles of water and the slightly dusty washcloth that had been hanging on the towel bar. Once he got going, he admitted that Noah was right; not reeking was pretty excellent. He even washed his hair. The soapsuds were grey as they swirled down the drain.
“Jer?” Noah called from the hallway. He tried the doorknob. “Here’s some stuff for you to change into.”
“Thanks. I’ll get it in a bit. I’m still rinsing off,” Jeremy said, towelling his dripping hair.
“Okay. I’ll be downstairs.”
Jeremy waited until he heard Noah’s footsteps receding down the stairs before he opened the door and grabbed the pile of clothing. A green T-shirt, beige chinos, and a green-and-beige plaid shirt, he saw when he shook them out. Noah must have gotten them from the walk-in closet. They were too big for him, but he had a belt in his old pants. He never used to wear one, but he’d had to scavenge one when his pants got too loose to comfortably run in.
He looked at his arm again. The wound had stopped bleeding, and in fact the bite seemed to have closed over again. He hid the stained bandanna in the empty toilet tank.
He went down to the kitchen. Noah had taken everything out of his backpack, and the table was littered with nylon bags and camping gadgets. There was a small heap of clothing at his feet.
Noah grinned. His hair was damp, too, and he’d somehow managed to shave. “Twins!” He indicated his own green T-shirt, beige chinos, and green-and-beige shirt in a slightly different plaid than Jeremy’s.
“You will be assimilated.” Jeremy said in a monotone. He put his arms out in front of him and lurched a few steps forward.
“Yeah, it is all a little suburban Borg-like, isn’t it?” Noah bent and picked up the clothing. “Anyway, while we’re on the Stepford Husbands theme, I’m going to do some laundry in the bathtub. You want to throw anything in?”
Jeremy ended up emptying his backpack too, a small and disappointing pile: his disgusting clothes, his stale snacks, the flashlight he kept hauling around in hopes of finding new batteries, a crumpled toothpaste tube, empty granola bar wrappers, two dulled disposable razors. Most of his crap should just go in the garbage, he thought, scratching at his scruffy stubble.
He carried his clothes upstairs. Noah had emptied yet more bottles of water into the bathtub, and made a lather with the blue-labelled liquid soap. “I didn’t want to put those in unless you said so,” he said, pointing his chin at the cast-offs Jeremy had been wearing before his wash.
“Let me check the pockets.” Jeremy dumped his armful into the tub and went through his grungy pants. A couple of wadded-up, much-used kleenexes and two folded and utterly useless twenty-dollar bills. He threw the clothing into the tub and, for lack of anywhere to put them other than the floor, put the rest into a front pocket of his chinos.
Noah swished the fabric around and rinsed his hands off. “Let’s let them soak.”
Jeremy followed him back downstairs. Noah packed almost everything back into his backpack, leaving out a couple of nesting camping pots and a paperback book. Then he made the rounds of the first floor, checking the locks on the back patio door and the front door. “I’m going to sit down and read for a while.” He stretched out on one of the two couches in the living room, his machete propped in its sheath against the side where he could easily reach it.
Jeremy had no book. He wandered around the living room. The shelves held random knickknacks: glazed pottery, a dish of pine cones, mason jars filled with stones. The books that were there seemed to have been chosen for the colour of their spines. He picked a red one out and flipped through colour-saturated photos of grilled vegetables and golden-crusted pies. His throat tightened. He hastily closed the book and put it back on the shelf.
He wandered into the kitchen and checked all the drawers and cupboards again. Then he did the same with the little powder room. He went upstairs and into the master bedroom. The broad windows looked over the main road, where heat shimmers and dust hovered above the asphalt.
He lay down on the enormous bed. He got up again. He went into the smaller bedrooms, but even through the blanket of detachment that seemed to have descended on him, the shelves of cheerful, orderly toys creeped him out. It was one thing to think about what had happened to people. It was worse to remember that some of those people had been kids.
He didn’t know how long he spent moving from window to window. Not much was happening in the midday sun. There was movement out there–the flags, birds, a cat once–but it wasn’t what he was looking for.
That was when he realized that he was looking for something. He had no idea what.
After a while, Noah came back upstairs, and they rinsed their clothes and twisted as much water out of them as they could and spread them out to dry on the shower curtain rod and all the bathroom fixtures.
“I’m getting hungry,” Noah said. “Come on, I’ll make mac and cheese.”
Jeremy took a quick breath through his mouth, quelling sudden nausea. “You know what, I think my stomach’s still off.”
Noah looked at him with concern. “Would soup be better? I could make soup instead.”
“No. No, I really think I should just not eat anything for a while. But you go ahead.”
They traipsed back down to the kitchen. Jeremy hadn’t seen a camp stove among Noah’s equipment, though he wouldn’t have been surprised if Noah had produced one anyway. But Noah scooped up the box of macaroni and cheese and his pots and took them to the fireplace. There was a fire already set there, birch twigs and kindling arranged aesthetically on unblackened bricks. Noah set to work rearranging it. Jeremy prowled around the room, peering out through the patio door and the windows. The shadows were longer now.
“Wow, you’re antsy,” Noah said. “If you’re not going to sit still, could you hand me some water?”
Jeremy fetched him a bottle. The fire was lit by the time he got back. Noah unfolded a little metal stand and put it next to the flames.
“I should have started this earlier,” he said. “Then we’d have some hot coals. Oh, well, it can soak first.” He tipped half the box of macaroni into the pot, then poured in just enough water to cover it.
“You’re good at this,” Jeremy blurted out.
“Mac and cheese?” Noah laughed. “I’ve only made it, like, ten thousand times.”
“No, I mean…” Jeremy circled his hands incoherently. “All of it. Getting the right gear, and knowing how to do stuff, and…everything. When did you get good at things?” He sounded surprised to his own ears, or maybe it was accusing.
Noah stirred the macaroni as though it required meticulous attention. “I told you I wanted to make some changes in my life.”
And there it was, the humongous elephant in the room. The reason for every one of their stupid breakups, the truth that had trashed every one of their agonizingly hopeful reunions, back before the world had ended. They’d been so much alike, two drifting twenty-somethings without any plans or expectations. And then Noah had changed, and Jeremy hadn’t.
Well. Until yesterday.
There wasn’t much to say. Jeremy did another round of the windows.
Noah fished around in his backpack and brought out a deck of cards. “Do you want to play something?”
Jeremy flopped down into one of the dining chairs. “Sure, why not.”
After several hands of poker–ante was a million dollars–during which neither of them could remember how to score, they switched to Go Fish, which was so ridiculously simple that even in his distracted state Jeremy managed to keep his mind on it. Time passed. Noah ate his mac and cheese, and spread the burning coals out in the fireplace to die.
“I’m ready to crash,” he said, gathering up his pack and his machete.
“I think it’s a good idea if we both sleep in the same room. If you’re okay with it. It’s safer.”
Jeremy picked up his own backpack. “Sure.”
The obvious choice was the master bedroom. It didn’t have a lock, but they barricaded the door with the pine chest from the foot of the bed. They chose their accustomed sides of the bed with no discussion. Noah took his chinos and long-sleeved shirt off and slid between the clean sheets with a sigh of pleasure. Jeremy took his pants off, leaving on his shirts–which were long enough on him to cover his naked crotch–and followed. He lay down on his back. He didn’t feel in the least bit tired.
“Goodnight,” Noah said into the twilight, and turned over onto his side, facing the far side of the bed.
Time did that funny thing again. When Jeremy opened his eyes what might have been hours later, it was fully night. The windows were lighter grey blanks at the end of the room.
Jeremy’s skin felt prickly. He pushed the blanket and sheet off of his body. A shiver went through him. A goose just walked over my grave, he remembered his Nana saying.
He rolled onto his right side. His body clenched as another wave of shivers hit him.
Noah shifted. “Jer? Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I’m just kind of cold.” He clawed at the folded-back blanket.
“How’s your stomach? Are you sure it’s not the food poisoning?” The mattress bounced as Noah sat up. A hand came out of the darkness and slid over his hair, cupped his forehead. “I can’t tell if you have a fever.” He sounded doubtful. “You’re pretty sweaty, though.”
“Sorry I woke you up.”
“No big deal.”
Jeremy waited for another swell of tremors to subside. “Go back to sleep. I’m really awake right now. I’m going to go sit in the bathroom for a while, okay?”
A pause. “Okay. Let me know if you need me to do anything.”
“Sure thing. Thanks.”
The bathroom windows let in light from the waning moon. His eyes were getting more accustomed to the dimness; Jeremy noticed a half-empty bottle of water that Noah must have left, and used it to wash out his gluey mouth. He didn’t worry about accidentally swallowing any, because his throat felt like a closed fist. His hands shook, and he dribbled water down the front of his T-shirt.
He sat on the lid of the toilet for a few minutes, but soon he was on his feet, pacing unsteadily between the double sink and the door to the bedroom. His knees were shaky, but everything in him said move, move, move. He felt like there was something he should have been moving towards, something he needed, something he missed with the ferocity of a cramp in his gut.
Noah. He realized it between one bout of trembling and the next. Yes, it was Noah he missed, Noah he needed so strongly that the feeling was less like love and more like gut instinct. Noah’s touch. His smell. His taste.
Jeremy eased the door open. He could hear Noah’s quiet breathing. He crept to the bed and slowly lay down, taking care not to jolt the mattress. He eased himself closer to Noah, an inch at a time, edging into his warmth. His knee bumped the back of Noah’s, and Noah stiffened and then stilled, as if he recognized that Jeremy was not a threat. Noah had always liked to cuddle.
Jeremy ached to slide his arm around Noah’s waist and pull him close, but he didn’t dare. He stopped with his forearm against Noah’s back, his head on the pillow beside Noah’s, his nose at the nape of Noah’s neck. The way Noah smelled made Jeremy’s mouth open, as if he could drink his scent down when he could stomach nothing else.
He must have fallen into that not-sleep, because somehow Noah was awake and pressing back against him. A dream, then. A dream where he could have what he wanted.
He squirmed the last few inches to nudge his chest against Noah’s back, his hips against Noah’s ass. Noah inhaled and rubbed back. Jeremy did slip his arm around Noah then. He pressed his hand against Noah’s chest, where he could feel the outline of his ribs, and licked the back of Noah’s neck. It was tantalizing, salt and flesh and the promise of satiation.
Then Noah was rolling onto his back, and Jeremy was on top of him, nuzzling his throat. He kissed it, open-mouthed, and Noah murmured and turned his head to the side, exposing the vulnerable hollow where his heartbeat throbbed just below the surface. Jeremy could feel it pulse under his tongue.
He slid his hand under Noah’s T-shirt to pull it up, and wriggled down the bed. He lapped at Noah’s nipples, and Noah writhed under him. Noah’s cock was hard against Jeremy’s abdomen.
Jeremy rubbed his face against the skin of Noah’s stomach, and moved down further. Noah’s smell was stronger here, and it made Jeremy groan with hunger and need. He scrabbled at the waistband of Noah’s underwear, managed to pull it down. Noah was breathing heavily. Jeremy shoved his face into the crease of Noah’s thigh and got a hand around his cock. His own dick was completely soft, but an electric shock went through him as he propped himself up on one elbow and took the tip of Noah’s cock into his mouth.
Noah moaned, and Jeremy echoed him. This, this was what he needed. He swirled his tongue, the savours of salt and musk suffusing his senses. He took Noah further in, until his mouth was full of flesh, hot and tender. He was able to suck and swallow now with no struggle at all. Noah arched his back. His cock scraped against Jeremy’s teeth, and Jeremy felt a dizzying wave of imagined sensation: how it would feel to bite down, the resistance and the yielding, the pulse of heated liquid spurting into his mouth, the satisfaction of a hunger like nothing he’d ever felt.
He shouldn’t. He knew he shouldn’t. No, but why shouldn’t he? This was just a dream.
He moved his mouth over Noah’s cock, drawing out the temptation. He tested his teeth against the side of Noah’s cock again, too gently to break the skin, testing the firmness of the flesh. Soon, soon. This was good, more than good, incredible, amazing. Biting would be ecstasy.
“Jeremy–” Noah said, tapping at Jeremy’s shoulder, “I’m almost–“
Then he made a sound as if he were in pain. His hips jerked in a heartbeat rhythm, and saline fluid flooded Jeremy’s mouth. Jeremy swallowed, forcing himself over Noah’s cock to the root, guzzling every drop down, as if he hadn’t had nourishment in days.
“Oh god. Stop,” Noah gasped. “To much. Jeremy, stop it.” He pushed at Jeremy’s shoulder. Jeremy allowed himself to be moved, sucking Noah’s softening cock clean as he let it fall from his lips. He crawled up the bed and collapsed with his head on his own pillow. Noah said something, but Jeremy’s brain couldn’t translate it. He lay in the dark and felt Jeremy’s life threading through his veins.
They got up with the sun. Noah chewed on some beef jerky for breakfast, and they packed up their still-damp clothes in silence. In the kitchen, they tucked water bottles into their backpacks, hefting them to test the weight. Noah took handfuls of chocolate chip cookies and stacked them in the side pockets where they wouldn’t be crushed. He seemed to be avoiding Jeremy’s eyes.
“I think we should talk about last night,” Noah said abruptly, tugging the drawstring of his backpack closed.
“Okay.” Had he upset Noah by dreaming about him? Jeremy frowned to himself. Wait, did that even make sense?
Noah took a deep breath. “I think it was a mistake.” His face was going pink. “I’m not blaming you. It was my fault too. I care about you, but I don’t want to have that kind of relationship with you again. I hope we can be friends, but that’s it, and we need to agree on that if we’re going to stick together.”
That unbearable panic rose in Jeremy again, the thought of being alone and hungry and bereft. He wasn’t exactly sure what was going on, but he couldn’t let Noah leave him. “Yeah. Yeah, I was thinking that too.”
Noah looked at him as if startled. Then he nodded. “All right. All right. Good. I’m glad you feel the same way.”
“So where are we going?”
Noah brought a map out of yet another pocket of his backpack. A real paper map. Jeremy hadn’t known they still made those. “There’s this village, Whitevale. I heard people are getting together there and setting up a community for the winter.” He unfolded the map on the table and pointed at a dot in the midst of green. “There’s a creek through it for water, and it’s surrounded by farmland, so maybe if we make it there we have a shot at not starving to death next year.”
The allure of going somewhere, anywhere, fought in Jeremy with a stab of jealousy. “Why can’t we just stay here?”
Noah blinked at him. “Here?”
“Sure. There’s a fireplace. We can get food.” He waved in the direction of the suburb across the road. “We can get water from, uh, somewhere.” He waved again, more vaguely; he knew there was a golf course down the road that he’d driven by tons of times, though he wasn’t really sure how far it was from here. “We don’t need other people.”
Noah was already shaking his head. “The two of us, alone here, for months? No way. We’d be zombie toast.”
The brief fantasy withered instantly. Jeremy recalled that there was a reason he shouldn’t plan too far ahead anyway, he just couldn’t remem—
“How long will it take to get there?”
“Two, three days. I was thinking of heading this way.” Noah’s finger traced a path north and west, from grey through green. “It’s a little out of our way, but I thought it would be safer than going through downtown.” He snapped the map shut along its folds.
“Okay. I’m ready.”
Noah looked at him. “You need a weapon.”
Jeremy looked about him as though something might offer itself. There should have been crossed swords over the fireplace, that would have been cool, but there was only stone veneer and a dried grass wreath with a gingham bow.
“There were some two-by-fours lying around back there.”
“I guess it’s better than nothing.” Noah bent to slide his arms through the straps of his backpack. “Okay, let’s get going.”
Even with his sunglasses, the morning sunlight was like skewers into Jeremy’s eyeballs. The day was going to be a hot one, a real August scorcher. His backpack was a lot heavier than it had been, and the three-foot-long piece of lumber he grabbed from a heap of debris a few houses over was hard to close his hand around. Still, it felt right to be travelling. He didn’t know what had gotten into him, to suggest they stay anywhere.
Crossing the concession road led them into an older, built-up part of town. They walked in the centre of the road, which was mostly clear except for the occasional car that had run out of gas and been left behind. There was really no safe way to travel; being on the road made them visible, but at least they’d have time to react if zoms charged out at them from behind a fence or hedge. A couple of times Jeremy spotted curtains or blinds swaying behind closed windows, and once they saw a group of three people further up the street. Noah put up a silent hand, and they waved back. None of them called out or stopped.
They passed a wreck of a service station, the parking lot crunchy with broken glass and shards of plastic. The attached convenience store had been gutted, but the garage, though picked through, still had an assortment of tools hanging over a scarred workbench.
“Try this,” Noah said, taking something down from the pegboard.
Jeremy wrapped his hand around the foam-taped handle. “For what?”
“It’s a wrench.”
“It’s a really big wrench.”
“Give it a swing,” Noah said, so Jeremy did. “That’s better than a piece of wood. I bet it can fit in that side pocket of your backpack. Then you don’t have to carry it.” He took the wrench back and fiddled with Jeremy’s pack. Jeremy opened his mouth and breathed in Noah’s scent as though he could taste him, an enticing blend of sweat and something like peaches.
They stopped in a park to eat lunch and drink some water and take a piss, except Jeremy’s body didn’t seem to need to do any of those things any more. While Noah was behind a bush, Jeremy got out one of the cookies and tossed it into the long grass under a tree. He crinkled the wrapper and dropped it as Noah emerged.
“I almost told you not to litter.” They both looked at the cellophane glittering in the sun.
Jeremy pointed across the weedy grass to an overturned metal trash can, a white plastic bag lying half-torn from its mouth like a deflated egg sac.
Noah sighed. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
The subdivisions gave way to to larger, spaced-out lots, some with enormous executive homes and some with century-old farmhouses, and the occasional field of parched-looking corn. The sidewalk disappeared. They took to the middle of the road, where the double yellow line unspooled towards the horizon.
After a few hours, they stopped again, retreating up someone’s gravel driveway where mature trees hid them from the road. There were no cars in the carport, and the whole place had an abandoned feel.
Noah dropped onto a cast-iron bench under a maple tree. His T-shirt was soaked through under the arms and in a line from his neck to his waistband. “I thought I was in shape, but man, you walk fast.”
“I guess I got into a rhythm.” Jeremy pretended to drink some water. As Noah got out the map and spread it out beside him, Jeremy wandered over to a patch of weeds ringed by chicken wire. Not weeds, he saw as he got closer: vegetables. He recognized zucchini the size of newborns, and vines heavy with flesh-pink tomatoes crawling up and over the fence.
He went back to Noah with his hands full. “Look what I found,” he said, placing four tomatoes onto the map.
“Holy shit.” Noah seized a tomato, wiped it on the hem of his shirt, and bit into it. Juice and seeds squirted from the corners of his mouth. He moaned.
“Awesome.” Noah held one up to Jeremy.
“You go ahead. I already ate a bunch.”
Noah finished the first and started on a second. He tapped the map with his clean hand. “I figure we can make it to here before dark, find a place to stay the night.”
Jeremy looked at the featureless crossroads of two narrow white lines. “Sounds good.”
They reached their destination in another couple of hours. It was the kind of place that looked like it had been a real village once, about a hundred years ago. Now it was a handful of houses, a boarded-up church, and a weathered convenience store that still advertised DVD rentals in its last unbroken window.
“How about that house?” Noah asked in a low voice as they walked. He pointed at a small wooden one with peeling paint, set a little back from the road.
“Or we could go…you know, um, like that creepy family in the movies.” The house they were passing on the other side of the road was a full three stories high, red brick, with black metal spikes around the roof.
“Nice,” Noah said. “Too big, though. Too many windows and doors.” They stopped and stood beneath the dead traffic light. “That one?”
It was a few lots in from the corner, a beige brick storey and a half with a peak in the roof. Maple trees that were probably as old as the house towered behind it. “Sure.”
They walked quietly down the cracked driveway. It was a shady lot, patchy cedar hedges on each side screening the house from its neighbours. It didn’t look vandalized; there were still a pair of lawn chairs on the broad front porch. You got a sense for whether a house was lived in or not, though, and Jeremy thought that the people who had been here were long gone.
Or maybe he was wrong, because a woman stepped through a gap in the hedge and staggered towards them.
Jeremy’s heart lifted. It was entirely instinctual, as if he’d run into a long-lost family member, and he had time to lift his arms as if he were greeting her before he heard Noah say, “Shit. Shit.”
“What’s wro–” Jeremy said, turning towards him, and saw several more people coming up the driveway.
“It’s okay, we can pick another house,” he said, mystified.
Noah put his arms behind his back and pulled his machete out of its sheath. “You take her out first, I’ll handle the others,” he said.
Jeremy realized what was happening with an excruciating lurch of understanding. But they won’t hurt us, he nearly said, before his brain hit reverse and informed him that yeah, the zombies were in fact going to try to hurt them. Or at least hurt Noah.
“Fuck, Jeremy, get out your weapon, come on,” Noah said. His face was pale, his jaw clenched.
But but but—
Then the scent of Noah’s sweat reached Jeremy, fresh like cut apples, and reminded him with an agonizing jolt whom he’d loved first.
He tugged his wrench–his very large wrench–out of its pocket on his backpack. The handle was easy for his stiff hands to grip, thick spongy tape over a hard core. He swung it up and down a few times as the woman stumbled in his direction.
She had only one eye; the other socket was a sticky hole. Her blue-flowered summer dress was glued to her body with something dark and crusted. Jeremy could see her finger bones as she grabbed out for…
…for Noah. She went around Jeremy as if he’d been a fencepost. He was so surprised, and so relieved, that he straightened out of his defensive half-crouch.
Her rotting fingers brushed Noah’s shoulder. Noah flinched and yelled. He was keeping two zombies at bay with his blade; another twitched in slowly dissolving pieces at his feet.
I’m sorry, Jeremy thought, clenched his teeth, and swung.
The business end of the wrench hit the woman on the back of the neck. She went down like a spiked volleyball and lay scrabbling on the straw-coloured grass, her head at a extreme angle. One of her hands grabbed at Noah’s foot. Jeremy brought the wrench down on her head several more times, trying not to watch too closely, and her body collapsed into sludge.
He circled around in front of Noah and took out one of the others with a whack to the knees, then finished him off on the ground. It wasn’t quick or clean. At least they probably weren’t feeling the pain.
And then he and Noah were the only ones left standing.
Jeremy sucked in gulps of air. He felt as though he were sobbing, though his eyes were dry. He leaned over with his hands on his thighs.
“Are you hurt?” Noah demanded. “Did you get bitten?”
“I’m sorry,” Jeremy said. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, it’s okay. You froze at first, but you came through.”
“I didn’t want to have to do that,” Jeremy said softly.
“I know. But actually, we’ve been lucky. I’m surprised we didn’t run into a pack before this.” Noah took a few steps away from the ichor-soaked ground and wiped his machete clean on dry grass. “We’d better get inside in case there are more of them.”
The front door of the house was unlocked. “Thanks, former residents of fourteen-five-three-nine whatever road this is,” Noah muttered, closing it behind them. Jeremy wondered if he did that every time.
The house was pretty run-down inside, and half the furniture looked like it had been dragged off the curb, but it hadn’t been totalled. They did a check of both floors and the basement. Only after they were sure that the house was empty did Noah lock the front door behind them.
“I need a wash.” Noah had gotten a lot messier than Jeremy had, though even Jeremy’s clothes were spattered with dark blood.
“At least we have clean, you know. Um. Laundry.”
“Yeah. Why don’t you look around and see if there’s anything worth taking?”
There wasn’t; no food or water, no duct tape or batteries or matches. Jeremy went into the second upstairs bedroom and lay down on the rumpled sheets on one of the two twin beds. He felt spacey, like that time he’d gotten in a fender-bender and nothing had seemed real for the rest of the day.
Noah came into the room, dressed in the clothes he’d been wearing the day before, wrinkled and not quite dry. Jeremy went and cleaned up in the bathroom. When he got back, the bedroom was grey with twilight. Noah was stretched out on the other of the beds, eating raisins out of a little box. He lifted it as if offering some to Jeremy, who shook his head.
“I’m wiped, and my feet are killing me,” Noah said. “If you want to stay up and read or something, I have some candles, but I’m just going to crash.”
“No, I’m pretty tired too.”
Noah licked his fingers clean and drank the last of his bottle of water. “Night, then.”
Jeremy didn’t feel tired. He didn’t feel in pain. The numbness was fading, giving way to the urgency that drummed in him: Go, go, go. Coupled, the more he lay there, with an increasing awareness of Noah lying so soft and unguarded with so little space between them. If he’d stretched an arm out, Jeremy could almost have touched him. He could certainly smell him, fragrant as warming milk. Jeremy turned onto his side, facing Noah. Breathing through his mouth, he could almost taste the sugar-salt of Noah’s sweat. What if he crossed the space between the beds, slid down beside Noah, nuzzled the honeyed scent at the nape of his neck. What if he dragged his teeth along the tender meat of Noah’s bare arm. He could almost feel the way Noah’s skin would indent under his teeth like a perfectly ripe plum, how it would give way with a pop to fill his mouth with sweetness.
He was standing by the other bed with no memory of getting up. Moonlight from the dormer window washed silver over Noah’s body. Jeremy could see the pulse beating in Noah’s neck. He bent closer.
Noah inhaled sharply and sat up. “Jeremy?”
“Yeah.” Who else would it be? And why couldn’t Noah see him? He could see Noah just fine.
“Why are you up? Is something wrong?”
“I was just looking out the window.” Jeremy turned to the silent lawn below.
“Are there zoms out there?”
“No. I just couldn’t sleep.”
Noah made a sound through his teeth. “Don’t stand so close, you freaked me out.” He thumped his pillow and turned over.
Jeremy lay back down on his own bed and watched the blank, slanted ceiling above him. He knew when Noah slipped into sleep. He was aware of when Noah turned over again, overheated in the small room, and the smell of dark caramel wafted over from him.
Jeremy got up and crept out of the room and down the stairs. He did a circuit of the first floor, looking out of each window in turn. Something small scampered across the overgrown lawn, a rabbit or a cat. Nothing taller, though he kept checking. The house was three rooms around the central staircase, and Jeremy travelled them, past the scratched kitchen counter and the chairs with their burst vinyl seats, past the stained couch and dead TV, over the threadbare carpet and cracked linoleum, around and around. It was freeing to be without a weight on his back.
When weak yellow light was seeping through the dirty windows, he heard movement above him. He went upstairs to find Noah making the bed that Jeremy had slept in. Noah’s own was already done, the bedspread smooth and taut around the pillow.
Noah turned. “Good morn–oh my god, your eyes.”
Jeremy’s hands shot to his face. His sunglasses were on the table under the window; he hadn’t taken them off until just before bed last night. “What about them?”
Noah was laughing. “That happened to me when I got food poisoning once. I threw up so hard all the little veins around my eyes burst. I looked like a zo–” He stopped. “Yeah, I guess that’s not funny anymore. How are you feeling?”
“Okay. I ate some…uh, the things we got from the house. Cookies.”
“Breakfast of champions.” Noah handed Jeremy his sunglasses. “Ready to go?”
Jeremy was out the bedroom door before Noah said, “Hey. I think you’re maybe forgetting something?” He indicated Jeremy’s backpack beside the bed.
“Oh. Right.” Jeremy came back into the bedroom and retrieved his pack. When he slipped his arms through the straps, they felt like restraints. Why was he carrying it, again? He could barely recall a thing that was in it.
Noah’s route turned them west, onto another concession road. The asphalt bore the patches and scars of frequent repair, but the road was still just two lanes, not widened and resurfaced in preparation for new suburbs like the ones further south. The morning was clouding over, a hot breeze stirring dust up from the dry shoulders of the road.
They stopped every so often to sit in the shade. Noah rubbed a handful of water over his sticky face. He was wearing a baseball hat that he’d produced from the depths of his pack yesterday, but even so, his nose was red and starting to peel. “Aren’t you hot in that shirt?”
Jeremy looked at his own flannel-clad arms. Yesterday when he’d glanced at the bite in the privacy of the bathroom, there had been amoebic blotches of dark purple and florid pink halfway down his forearm and creeping across his chest. “I don’t want to get a…” He glanced up at the flat grey sky. “You know. A thing. Sunburn.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right, but I’m roasting.” He trickled water over the back of his neck. “All right, we’d better get going.”
Noah started to limp mid-afternoon. He didn’t say anything about it at first, but when they stopped to sit on a bench beside an empty roadside farmstand, he bent over and unlaced his running shoe. “I feel like I’m getting a blister.” He peeled down his sock. There was a raw spot the size of a dime on the back of his right heel.
Sensation shot through Jeremy’s body as if he’d been touched with a live wire. He heard himself inhale.
“Ow, right? It’s stupidly painful for something that small. Shit, I don’t think I have any bandaids left.” He clicked his tongue and carefully rolled the sock back up. “Not much I can do about it. Let’s slow down a bit, okay?”
In the late afternoon they started to keep an eye out for a place to spend the night. They passed some creepy burned-out houses, and several with smashed windows. One had some kind of large farm machine driven right over its front porch and into the living room, joists sticking out around the wound like broken ribs.
“Ontario fucking gothic,” Noah said, and shivered. His stride was noticeably uneven now.
Jeremy pointed diagonally across the road. There was a large, modern house there, sprawling over what had probably been farmland a few years earlier, set far back from the road behind a vast lawn gone to seed.
“Sure, let’s try it.”
The driveway was black and smooth. The house looked like three separate homes had been crammed together, with a four-car garage stuck on one end. The front entrance was two double doors flanked by dehydrated brown topiary.
“Money, money, money.” Noah tried the doors. They were locked. He cupped his hands against the glass. “Wow, I can see all the way through. There’s nobody in there.”
“Back door,” Jeremy said.
“Yeah, might as well try.”
They hiked around the side of the house, passing a huge multi-level patio and grotty-looking inground pool. It all looked abandoned: dry leaves on the furniture, an umbrella blown over into a hedge. The back of the house was a line of tall glass doors, every one of them locked.
“I’m half tempted to just throw a rock through a window,” Noah said.
“Yeah. I bet they have band-aids in there, though. They probably have a fully stocked panic room with five years’ worth of dehydrated pizza and astronaut ice cream and booze. Did you see the solar panels on the roof? They probably have electricity.” Noah aimed a half-hearted kick at the nearest door.
Sound pierced the air like a physical attack. Noah jumped a couple of feet straight upwards. Jeremy whirled, trying to find a source, a direction, but the sound was all around them, as if they were standing right on top of an air raid siren.
Noah’s lips were moving. He tugged Jeremy’s arm. “We have to get out of here!” he yelled in Jeremy’s ear.
Yeah, every zombie in hearing range would be attracted to a noise like that. Jeremy felt it like a fishhook in his guts, and he was there.
Noah was already heading back around the house. Jeremy followed. They cleared the ragged evergreens that edged the circular driveway and saw two figures where the driveway met the road. Another was wading through the tall grass from the neighbouring lot.
Which meant they hadn’t been very far away anyway.
“This way!” Noah pelted off across the lawn, heading for the line of trees that edged the property. He was limping even as he ran, a loping uneven stride. Behind them, the zombies began a guttural call. Prey, Jeremy translated. Life. Here.
He crashed into the trees behind Noah. It was only a narrow windbreak. Beyond were more farmers’ fields, thick with thistles and milkweed. Jeremy looked back. There were at least six zombies now, and more shapes moving at the road.
“I don’t think we can’t fight that many. We have to find a place to hide.” Noah leaned against a tree, panting. “If we can get far enough away, the alarm might act as a decoy.” He looked up the road, the way they’d been heading. “A house, a shed, anything.”
They jogged alongside the trees. Moans and the sound of breaking twigs behind them marked their pursuers. Jeremy nearly ran into Noah a couple of times; Noah was slowing down.
They dashed over the road and into another field. Noah stopped, and twisted his arms out of his backpack, letting it fall to the ground. He grabbed his machete. “Too heavy. We can come back for it.”
Jeremy dropped his own pack with something that would have been relief if he’d been still able to feel it. Without that weight, he felt like he could fly.
“Don’t forget your wrench,” Noah said, and then they were running again, gasps and groans behind them getting nearer.
They took the first driveway that presented itself, up over the ditch to a yellow brick house with rotting grey gingerbread dripping from its eaves. The front door looked as though it had been kicked in. Noah went through it. Jeremy followed him through to the back door, hanging on its hinges.
“Shit. Garage,” Noah said. “No, wait.”
Beside the back door was an old TV antenna tower. Noah gave it a shake and started to climb it.
Jeremy wrapped the fingers of one hand around a rung, and stared at them.
“Jer!” Noah was on the roof now, looking down. “Come on! You can do it. It’s not that high. Oh my god, oh my god.” Jeremy heard a moan behind him, not very far away. “Jeremy. Please. Jeremy!”
It was hard to sort out, not like walking at all. But he got hands and feet on the metal, and then moved each of them upwards in turn. He imitated Noah, crooking one elbow around the vertical strut to hold his weight so he could still hold his wrench. Something shook the tower, but he was out of the range of grasping hands, and zombies didn’t climb. It took him a lot more time than it had Noah, but eventually he was stepping out onto the grainy, sun-heated asphalt shingles of the roof.
“Oh. My. Fucking. God.” Noah sat down, or maybe his legs gave out.
“Safe,” Noah echoed. He flopped down into a lying position. “That just about killed me. I’m dead.”
Jeremy sat beside him. “Not dead.”
Noah turned his head to look at him. “Right. Not dead.” He shivered once, hard. “Hopefully, they’ll forget about us and go see what the noise is.” Jeremy could still hear the shrill keening of the security alarm. Go, go, said his instincts. No, he told himself. Not yet.
Noah stretched. “Ow.” He sat up again and untied his shoe, then eased it off. The back of his sock was a quarter-sized circle soaked red. “Dammit.” He carefully took the sock off. His heel was a raw mess. The smell of sweet wine rose into the air.
Noah took his other shoe and sock off. “At least I can make sure it won’t stick when it dries.” He lay back again. “Might as well settle in for the night. We’re not going anywhere for a while.”
The rain started just after sunset. First there were a few small drops here and there, soft pops that could have been the old house under them creaking in the summer heat. Then bigger raindrops plopped down; Jeremy imagined he could hear them sizzling as they hit the shingles. Then came the downpour. They were both soaked through in minutes.
“Great. Fucking fantastic.” Noah rolled over onto his side and put one arm over his face.
“Shower,” Jeremy offered.
“Yeah, if you want to get naked and scrub down, don’t let me stop you. Just don’t blame me if you get hit by lightning.” Thunder vibrated through the roof. Noah flinched. “Oh, shit, don’t stand up, you could get hit by lightning!”
Jeremy lay back and watched the sky strobe above them, the flashes fragmenting the antenna tower and the chimney and the trees around them into shards. The eye of the storm passed over them, then another burst of rain. After that he watched the clouds, scudding above in infinite shades of grey, until the sky cleared to reveal boundless blackness and a billion remote points of silver.
Some time later, Noah sat up. He was shivering. It was probably cold to be in dripping clothes on a roof in the middle of the night.
“Not tired?” Jeremy asked after a while.
“No, I am absolutely fucking exhausted. And I’m freezing.” Noah sighed. “I’d suggest we cuddle to share body heat, except I know that wouldn’t be a good idea.”
He looked upwards too, to the stars that neither of them had been able to see before the end of the world. “It’s so bizarre that you were the one I ran into. Like we never really finished with each other.” He picked at the curling edge of a shingle. “I tried so hard to stay. Do you get that? I knew I was fucking it up, and I knew I was going to fuck everything up by leaving anyway. And I knew I needed to leave, but I didn’t want to face it for so long. I really loved you. But I couldn’t be who I wanted to be when we were together. It sucked, it’s always sucked, but it’s true.”
He folded his arms together and drew his knees up, making himself smaller to keep himself warm. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re here after all. Probably nobody knows me like you do.” He rested his cheek on one knee. “Nobody still alive.”
“You sad?” asked Jeremy, after Noah didn’t continue.
“Only if I think about it.” Noah gave a little huff, not really laughter. “It’s easier if I just focus on surviving, you know? Make a plan, stick to the plan. My dying isn’t going to bring anybody back. But face it, either of us could die at any time. Die or get zombified. Last night in the village, if you hadn’t been there, that would probably have been it for me. I could be turning now. I’d rather get eaten, if I have a choice.”
“No, I’m serious.” He turned his head to rest the other cheek on his knee, looking at Jeremy. “If I get bitten, don’t wait until I start looking at you like you’re Thanksgiving dinner. Wrench me. Or you can use my machete. I don’t want to be changed into something I didn’t choose. I’d rather die while I’m still myself.”
And Jeremy understood, the way he never had over endless fights and ineffectual separations and the final rending breakup, as if the idea were storm clouds wisping away to reveal the starry sky: This was why Noah had been right to leave him.
And why it was now his turn to bring things to an end.
Jeremy didn’t dare touch Noah, for fear he wouldn’t be able to let go. But he shaped his lips into a smile, even though he was pretty sure it wasn’t convincing and Noah wasn’t even able to see it. “Sleep.”
Noah lay back down. “Good idea. Good night, Jeremy.”
The zombies were gone in the morning, though who knew how close they might still be. The security alarm was silent now too. Maybe it had been shorted out by the downpour, or hit by lightning.
They walked back down the road to get their backpacks, which were drenched and heavy. Yesterday’s humidity had dissolved with the storm, and the air was cool. The hairs were raised all over Noah’s bare arms. He gave off an odor of rain and maple syrup.
“…How long?” Jeremy asked.
“How long what?”
“Today.” Jeremy wanted to say, How far do we have to go? How long do we have left? The words were in his brain, but his mouth didn’t seem to want to shape them. He suspected he’d start losing the words themselves soon enough.
Noah pulled a sodden rectangle of paper out of a side pocket of his pack and shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine.” He stuffed it back into the pocket and opened a water bottle. “When we hit a sideline that looks good, we’ll go south until we hit Whitevale Road. Then it’s straight across to the village. We might be there by mid-afternoon.” He downed half of the bottle. “I hope they have real food.” He eyed a chocolate chip cookie with resignation, then ripped the package open and took an unenthusiastic bite.
They walked. At one point, Noah stopped and took his shoe off. The scent of ripe strawberries was intoxicating. Jeremy reached out a hand and let it hover while he tried to remember why he shouldn’t touch Noah. Noah walked for a few minutes with one stockinged foot, swore, and put his shoe back on again.
Jeremy kept outpacing Noah and seeking his own rhythm, going, going, only to be stopped with the hiss of his name behind him before he really hit his stride. He took to waiting for Noah at driveways and side roads, circling on the asphalt rather than stopping. His pack rubbed below one shoulder, sensation but not pain. Soon, he thought, he would leave this weight behind.
Noah’s walk was an uneven roll. His lips were pressed together, and his hands gripped the straps of his pack as though he were trying to hold himself together. He stopped acknowledging Jeremy as he reached him, just passed and went on going, eyes on the distance.
They turned south. The winter had left potholes in the two-lane road, cracks spiderwebbing out from them. The ditches were muddy from the night’s rain. In one place, the culvert had backed up, washing sand and gravel from the shoulders over the surface.
They turned west. This was a real country road, asphalt pounded into a mosaic, unpruned bushes and vines reaching out from wire fences and electrical poles.
Something cried out over the fields, impossible to tell how far away, sound soaring in the still air. The hairs on the back of Jeremy’s neck rose. His people were calling. They were calling for him.
There was a noise behind him. Jeremy’s nostrils flared as he turned towards the ambrosial scent of the prey.
“–be far now,” Noah said.
Jeremy nodded. But they would be closer, soon.
He stayed at Noah’s side for the last few kilometres, tethered by that fragrance, savouring the ache of want it kindled in him–not really hunger, just need, sharp and growing.
They came to the wall.
It was a fence, really, taller than Jeremy could have reached, some of the wood raw and pale, some aged grey. The gate was a wide section of wrought iron. Through it Jeremy could see houses and roofs and trees. Not far from the gate was a tower, or at least a platform, higher than the fence. A person sat on it, holding a gun.
Noah said some things, and the person with the gun said things back and came down from the tower. The meaning of the words faded in and out like one of those things Jeremy used to listen to in the car. Jeremy stood behind the prey and breathed with his mouth open, tasting the scent of him. Pink skin was inches from him. He could have it now, rip it tender from flesh and white bone, fill his mouth with rich hot salt. Nothing could stop him. Jeremy felt his lips curl back from his teeth.
Noah stepped forward and took off his backpack. He pulled his T-shirt up to his shoulders and turned in a circle. Jeremy felt himself moan, quiet and deep in his throat. Noah unzipped his pants and pushed them down, turning again, displaying the unbroken skin of his legs. He took off his shoes and talked some more. Jeremy’s eyes were glued to the red blotch on the back of his heel.
There were more people behind the fence now. One of them did something to the gate, and swung it open enough for the prey to slide through. He did, and the gate clanged shut.
Noah said something in Jeremy’s direction, then again, loud and urgent. Jeremy walked to the gate and folded his fingers around one of the bars.
The prey had escaped him. The prey was safe. The prey would not be his. It was difficult for all of those thoughts to occupy the same space. Jeremy shook the gate hard in mingled relief and longing.
The beings beyond the gate stepped backwards and began to make noise. One raised something and pointed it at Jeremy.
One word tumbled out of the sound. “Jeremy?” Noah’s eyes were wide.
The prey was free. So, at last, was he.
Jeremy let his backpack slide to the dirt one last time. He pulled off his sunglasses. The light no longer hurt him. The prey made a sound like pain, and it exalted Jeremy’s blood.
He turned and ran. Down the road, over the ditch, into a field. There was a loud noise behind him. Something hit him like a heavy blow. There was no pain, not for him. He kept running, without bonds, without restraint, with the speed his body craved. He could hear them again across the fields, that high, far-off cry. They were calling for him. He would join them. He would join his people, who would know who he was, who would embrace him for himself, who would love him as he deserved.